A Brief History
On December 12, 1941, American forces were still reeling from the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor when Philippine-American pilot Jesus Villamor led a flight of Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” fighter planes against superior Japanese aircraft that were raiding Batanga Airfield.
Superb Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter planes were escorting G3M Nell bombers. The Philippine-American force had only a handful of greatly outclassed P-26s. Despite the odds, Villamor managed to shoot down 2 Zeros while his men shot down an additional Zero and a Nell, an incredible feat considering the differences in the quality of airplanes involved.
The P-26 was perhaps the least capable American fighter plane of World War II. First flown in 1932, only 151 were built. It was a throwback to an era before the Japanese Zero, the German Bf-109 and the British Hurricane redefined fighter aircraft in the mid 1930s.
The P-26 was named the “Peashooter” because of its pathetic armament of only 2 x .30 caliber machine guns. Furthermore, it had an old-fashioned open cockpit and speed-robbing fixed landing gear, and it’s 600 horsepower engine could only propel it to a maximum speed of 234 mph. These low capabilities caused the Peashooter to become obsolete only 3 years after its introduction when the Curtiss P-36, with its enclosed cockpit, retractable landing gear and 313 mph top speed was first flown. The P-26 Peashooter, however, the first all-metal fighter the U.S. had to offer.
The P-26 had seen some limited service in China and had been engaged in history’s first all-metal fighter vs. fighter encounter. Success, though, was limited. One P-26 actually saw service in the Spanish Civil War before the outbreak of World War II but achieved no known success. Surprisingly, the P-26 remained in service in Guatemala until it was finally retired in 1956 after having last seen combat in 1954.
The Japanese Zero, on the other hand, was speedy and highly maneuverable. It was capable of flying up to 331 mph, and with 2 x .30 caliber machine guns and 2 x 20mm cannons, it was well armed. Considering the nearly 100 mph top speed difference, it is a miracle the P-26s had any success at all. Even the Japanese Nell bombers flew as fast as the P-26, and they were armed with 1 x 20mm cannon and 4 x .30 caliber machine guns!
For his exploits, Villamor was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the second highest medal in the U.S. military. Incredibly, only 2 days earlier, on December 10, 1941, he had been involved in another exploit for which he was also awarded a DSC! He is the only Filipino to earn 2 such awards.
As has always been the case in warfare, lesser weapons wielded with skill and courage can sometimes overcome superior technology. World War II provided many examples of this, notably by the Finns, the Polish Resistance, the French Resistance and, of course, by the Americans and Filipinos who flew outmoded aircraft at the beginning of the war.
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For more information, please see…
Davis, Larry, Joe Sewell, et al. Boeing P-26 Peashooter – Mini in action No. 2. Squadron/Signal Publications, 2000.